The New York Film Festival Opens Quietly at Alice Tully with Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass

“It’s like prom night didn’t happen this year,” said documentarian Aviva Kempner (Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg) on Friday, September 25, standing in the lobby of Alice Tully Hall, where the New York Film Festival was celebrating its opening night. She was disappointed at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s decision to move the party from its traditional home at beleaguered restaurant Tavern on the Green.

Psychologist Eva Fogelman agreed, disapproving of “the level of dress.” Dr. Fogelman, a specialist in Holocaust survivors who wore a black sequined frock, pointed out that formerly this premiere social event for New York’s cinephiles was a black-tie affair. The dress code on this year’s invitation was specified as “dazzling,” a category that apparently embraced cocktail dresses, jeans, and one neon-green suit.

“Many people didn’t enjoy” the more formal dress code, said festival program director Richard Peña. “But also, we never stopped anyone who wasn’t wearing black tie.”

He added that “Tavern had become almost too big. We wanted to rein in the party a little. Look, there were some economic considerations too–we had to lay off some staff this year, and we thought a smaller, low-key party would fit the spirit of the year.”

The hall’s vertiginous geometry also seemed to fit the spirit of the opening-night film selection, Alain Resnais‘s Les Herbes Folles (Wild Grass), a surreal late-career fantasia about a man who becomes obsessed with the woman whose wallet he finds in a parking garage. The director punctuates their halting, mutually suspicious affair with lingering shots of wind-ruffled grass.

The 87-year-old Mr. Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad) came onstage before the screening with the help of a cane, which he said was only temporary. “My leg isn’t broken,” he told the audience. “But considering the way you use the expression ‘I hope you break your leg,’ I think it’s a good sign for the film.”

Mr. Resnais received a standing ovation, but his new movie rendered some viewers speechless. Young director Alex Olch (The Windmill Movie), when asked what he thought of the film, responded with a slow, uncertain nod and a long draft of pomegranate martini. The Film Comment staffer standing next to him followed suit.

“There was a lot of the nouvelle vague in the film,” said WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate. The movie’s false ending, intrusive narrator, ironic score–they were tricks that “only a young filmmaker who’s trying to show off or an older filmmaker who knows everything would use,” he added.

One of the film’s stars, Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), stood nearby with the flame-haired burlesque dancer Dirty Martini, drinking a beer. What did Mr. Amalric think of the movie’s chilling dentist’s office scene? “I just spent the past month at the dentist,” he said, shaking his head. “You get older and it all falls out.”

The New York Film Festival Opens Quietly at Alice Tully with Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass